Putin’s war on Ukraine is only the culmination of nearly a quarter of a century of progressively more violent aggression against the enemies he sees everywhere. As Ukrainian cities have burned, millions of its people forced to flee, and untold thousands killed, the Kremlin’s hatred has also been focused on domestic enemies – with independent thinkers and journalists key amongst them. British Channel 4’s chronicle of the struggles of Novaya Gazeta – a bastion of honest, thorough investigative reporting in Russia since the 1990s – and the paper’s charismatic editor-in-chief, Dmitry Muratov, exposes the extent to which Putin’s autocratic rule has now become totalitarian.
A close friend
Patrick Forbes’ The Price of Truth is an intimate portrayal of Muratov – made by a man who has counted Muratov as a close friend for over 20 years. It opens with shocking footage of an attack on Muratov in April 2022, when a masked assailant threw acetone-laced red paint over him in a train compartment at Moscow’s Kazan Railway Station. Muratov had the presence of mind to pursue the man, filming him after a policeman stopped him. No charges were made, and the man – a member of a military veteran group with connections to the Russian security services – was quickly released.
Muratov’s ‘crime’ – in the eyes of those in Russia who regard him as a traitor – was to cover the truth about the war in Ukraine. In the wake of the February 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine, a series of bold front-page stories called the war out for what it was – a violent, unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation’s neighbour. In a country where even calling what the Kremlin dubs a «special military operation» war, the issues were a red rag to Putin’s growing demands for complete obedience by Russian society.
In a country where even calling what the Kremlin dubs a «special military operation» war, the issues were a red rag to Putin’s growing demands for complete obedience by Russian society.
The Price of Truth cuts back and forth across Muratov’s life in the past couple of years – tracing his increasing prominence after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (along with Philippines journalist Maria Ressa) in December 2021, through the start of the war and subsequent moves by the Kremlin to silence the paper, which was ordered closed in March 2022.
Muratov is a man constantly on the move – one day in Riga at the ArtDocFest (run by Ukrainian-born Russian director and Putin critic Vitaly Mansky) – the next in Paris, Vienna, Tallinn or New York. But he always returns to Russia, even as dozens of his staff, fearing arrest or worse, leave. Muratov declares that it is his duty to stand by his staff and stay with those who cannot leave. Over the years, six members of the editorial staff had died because of their fierce commitment to telling the truth: Igor Domnikov, beaten to death at a time when he was investigating organised crime; Yury Shchetochikhin, poisoned; Anna Politkovskaya, gunned down by a Chechen assassin, and Natalia Estemirova, a Chechen lawyer and journalist who worked closely with her, murdered after being kidnapped, among them.
As the full horror of the war in Ukraine unfolds – and the world adds Bucha to its list of atrocities – the Kremlin noose on independent thought and speech tightens: journalists are imprisoned for 20 years for criticising the war, a regional politician sent down for seven years for using the word ‘invasion’ in a social media post. Muratov tries to find ways to continue telling the truth via the publication of a magazine supplement and YouTube channel. A European version of Novaya Gazeta – published in Russian on a shoestring budget by former Novaya Gazeta journalists now based in Riga, comes out. To maintain the pretence this has nothing to do with the Moscow newspaper, Muratov and the editor of the European version, Kirill Martynov, avoid being seen together.
Muratov, a tall, stout and single-minded man, never gives up. He resolves to sell his gold Nobel Prize medal at a top international auction house in New York – and donate the proceeds to Ukrainian refugees. It raised $103 million. None of this pleases the Kremlin. Little of it reaches ordinary Russians, now entirely reliant on state-directed propaganda posing as news on TV, radio and in the press.
Eventually, it becomes too dangerous for Forbes to continue filming Muratov in Russia, and the closing minutes of the film – detailing the efforts Muratov goes to rescue a Novaya Gazeta journalist Elena Milishina and Alexander Nemov, a lawyer travelling with her, who were badly beaten shortly after arriving in Grozny in early July this year – rely on mobile phone footage shot by Muratov and those close to him.
Seedlings for a new nation
A long-time friend of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (who died in August 2022), Muratov remains true to the idea that Russia can be open to the world and the world open to Russia. The destruction of Russia under what he deems a death cult exemplified by Putin’s Kremlin pains him to his core. But this is a man who believes in Russia, who believes in its potential. And he is not about to give up.
The Price of Truth will not please the Kremlin. It may not find favour with many Ukrainians – embittered by the war, many Ukrainians today believe the only good Russian is a dead Russia. The trials and tribulations faced by Muratov may seem relatively minor compared to the destruction being wreaked on Ukraine. This is a film that demonstrates that such comparisons are senseless: the war Putin is waging on Ukraine may be far, far worse in degree than that being waged by him on his own people. But the long-term damage to the Russian people may yet prove to be far, far worse than that suffered by the Ukrainians. Those who have the courage to stand against the war in Russia are a tiny minority. But those, like Muratov, are the seedlings for growing a new nation one day – long after Putin and his acolytes are dead and gone.
Further Reading: Voices of reason in a world of lies